Geoff Palmer arrived in England from Jamaica barely literate, yet he overcame that and the racism he found at every turn to become a world renowned professor of brewing. Olga Wojtas reports
It is tempting to suggest that Geoff Palmer is probably the best-known professor of brewing in the world. The holder of the American Society of Brewing Chemists' award of distinction - the Nobel prize of brewing - was appointed an OBE for services to grain science in this year's Birthday Honours List. But the internationally renowned professor at Heriot-Watt University says he would have achieved nothing had it not been for the man at the door.
It was March 1955, Palmer's first morning in England. He was 14 years and 11 months old, and had just arrived from Jamaica to join his mother. She had been working in London since 1948, saving her dressmaking wages until she had the £86 for Palmer's passage. His mother woke him at 6am to get ready for a job as a grocery boy to earn much-needed cash.
As they left their single room in Caledonian Road, they found a man outside the front door. "He was wearing a three-piece pinstripe suit and a bowler hat and carrying a briefcase," Palmer recalls. "He was obviously from immigration, and he said: 'Here you don't leave school till you're 15.' My mother begged, she cried, but he said: 'I don't make the rules. He must go to school.'" Palmer was duly sent to the local secondary modern, where the headteacher insisted that his new pupil stay on until June, as it would have ruined his register if he had been permitted to leave at Easter. The boy had attended a church school in Jamaica, whose head, an authoritarian Scot, had a unique view of education. "All he ever taught us to do was to sing. British songs, Row, Boys! and Loch Lomond ," Palmer says. "You had to sing them right, or you got a beating with a five-finger strap. And you were taught to stand in a line because that was what decent people in England did."
At his new school in London, the young Jamaican was assessed as educationally subnormal. But he was a star on the cricket pitch and was soon playing for London schoolboys in fixtures against the likes of Eton and Winchester. At one match against Harrow, Palmer was shown around the dormitories by a boy wearing a boater.
"I thought they must be really poor," he says. "In Jamaica, poor people wore straw hats. And it was only me and mum sleeping in our one room, while here were lots of them in double bunks. The boy asked: 'What does your daddy do?' I'd heard my dad was a gangster, in gambling, so I said: 'He's in the numbers racket in New York,' and he replied: 'My dad does something similar. He's in the City.'" Palmer's cricketing prowess led to his being poached by a grammar school that offered him a grant to stay on. Nevertheless, despite his poor early education, he earned an O level in biology and at 17 applied for a job as a junior lab assistant at Queen Elizabeth College, now part of King's College London. Zoology professor Garth Chapman asked his name. On being told "Godfrey Henry Oliver Palmer", he retorted: "You can have the job if I call you Geoff."
He has been Geoff ever since, except to his mother and school friends. "I didn't find it politically incorrect," he says. "To me, he was finding a reason to give me a job when I probably wasn't qualified."
Chapman proved as significant as the man at the door in helping Palmer carve out his future. The professor sent his new lab assistant to the local polytechnic for one day a week, and by the time Palmer was 20, he had acquired three A levels and seven O levels. But even with such qualifications, the Jamaican was unable to secure a place at a university.
Chapman was appalled at this apparent racism.
"This was the anger of a just man," Palmer says. "He said: 'Stay outside my door and don't move.' Then he came out after three-quarters of an hour and told me: 'You're going to Leicester University,' even though they'd already turned me down. Everybody always said you've got to work hard, but if you belong to certain sectors of society, hard work without the Good Samaritan doesn't work, because you can't access the system."
After gaining a 2:2 in biology, Palmer applied for a sponsored MSc. The interview panel included Keith Joseph, later the guru of Thatcherism, who was unimpressed by Palmer's inability to distinguish wheat from barley. The two staple crops had not been considered "decent" plants for study at Leicester, although Palmer can now distinguish the two through a train window while travelling at 125 miles an hour. With a cavalier disregard for geography, Joseph suggested that Palmer return to Trinidad and grow bananas. Instead, he went to the labour exchange on Seven Sisters Road and got a job peeling potatoes in a restaurant.
"People like Keith Joseph caused a lot of black people a lot of harm and hurt," Palmer says. "It's worse than calling me 'nigger' from a car - that happens all the time, it's no big deal. The most dangerous thing in society is people who are in a position to make a difference and prevent other people from achieving."
But Palmer would meet other people who were prepared to see beyond the colour of his skin. One such was Anna MacLeod, professor of brewing and biochemistry at Heriot-Watt. She accepted Palmer as a PhD student. "She weighed my achievements against my difficulties because of my references," he says. "These people had the ability to make decisions on my potential, giving me the benefit of the doubt."
MacLeod's faith was soon rewarded. Within two years, Palmer had completed his PhD and joined the elite Brewing Research Foundation. He made his name changing concepts in malting and cereal research, creating a formidable reputation that prompted Heriot-Watt to offer him the chair in 1989 when MacLeod retired.
But Palmer's achievements are no protection from racism. He enjoys telling a story about keeping an appointment at an establishment he tactfully refuses to name. He later discovered that his host, surprised by his non-appearance, rang reception to be told: "Professor Palmer hasn't arrived. But there's a black guy who wants to see you - I've told him to wait."
More disturbingly, Palmer says he has to go into "protection mode" when travelling. "When I arrive at King's Cross station in the middle of the night and some guy threatens to kick the **** out of me, he doesn't give a toss who I am. I'm just black." Outside Edinburgh, a man once leapt out of a car to start a racist attack on Palmer. Police who were passing intervened, and the man complained: "You should be on my side."
Palmer, a prominent champion of racial equality and community work, is honorary president of the Edinburgh and Lothians racial equality council. He recently published a modern fable, Mr White and the Ravens , that tackles the ignorance and prejudice surrounding racism. And he retains an undiminished capacity for finding the positive. He was in a newsagent's when two small boys came in. One pointed at him and said: "There's a nigger." The other boy scolded the first, saying: "It's rude to point."
"It's a beautiful educational story," Palmer says. "It shows the boys had been taught not to point at an older person. If you can teach them not to point, you can teach them not to call someone a nigger."